Tucson: A Birdwatcher’s Paradise
More than 500 species to discover in the Sonoran Desert
A generally mild climate, diverse vegetation, varied elevations and proximity to the Sierra Madres make Southeastern Arizona a birder's playground. Each year, Arizona sees approximately 550 species, the highest of any state without an ocean coastline. The region is home to isolated mountains called “Sky Islands” separated by seas of lush Sonoran Desert. These Sky Islands create an ecosystem of diverse habitats, from desert scrub and grasslands to pine and fir forests at higher elevations. These conditions bring a wide variety of species to the area, acting as the perfect steppingstones between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Madres for many birds’ migratory paths.
Southeastern Arizona brings migratory birds to the desert year-round due to its five “seasons” of migration patterns – Spring, Dry Season, Rainy Season, Fall, and Winter. The region’s monsoon season boosts bird activity the most in the summers. A rapid greening follows the rains from mid-July to mid-September, causing many birds to take advantage of this “second spring,” either delaying nesting until the monsoons or nesting for a second time in summer.
During the summer blooms, a diversity and abundance of hummingbird species arrive. Meanwhile, Mexican species move north, and northern species (like the Yellow-Headed Blackbird and Baird’s Sandpiper) come south. Altitudinal migrants move up and down the mountain slopes of the Sky Islands during different parts of the year, following resources as the temperatures change.
Visit the year-round mecca called the Sweetwater Wetlands northwest of downtown Tucson. Formerly a water treatment center with more than 125 acres of wetlands and ponds, this park has seen more than 300 species of birds since its opening in 1996. It is open to the public seven days a week for self-guided exploration, offering an accessible birding location for those who want to stick around the city.
At the mostly outdoor Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, you can leisurely explore the grounds on their paved paths with ample opportunities to spot some winged friends of the deserts near Saguaro National Park West. Attend their Raptor Free-Flight Presentation to see birds of prey up close. Two on-site bird and hummingbird aviaries offer shady, tranquil respites from the desert, where you can spot 20 bird species and 17 hummingbird species.
In the heart of the city, check out Reid Park, one of the best places to spot over-wintering raptors like the Merlin and Sharp-Shinned Hawks. More than 200 species of birds and waterfowl have been sighted at this approachable urban hotspot.
Overlooking the city at the highest point of the Santa Catalina Mountain Range, you’ll find Mount Lemmon, one of the region’s sky islands. The drive up will take you from 2,000 to 9,000 feet with scenery resembling a drive from Mexico to the Canadian border, going from saguaro-studded desert to broadleaf tree forests. Atop Mount Lemmon, you’ll spot species like the Red-Faced Warbler, Mountain Chickadee, and Pygmy Nuthatch.
Take a Drive
Want to get out of town? Just two hours southeast of the city, you’ll find the Chiricahua Mountains where you’ll spot species like the Black Phoebe, Curve-billed Thrasher, Elegant Trogon, and Mexican Jay. Sixty miles from Tucson you’ll find Patagonia, a world-class destination for birders and home to hummingbird heaven. Be sure to check out the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, which focuses on the celebration and conservation of hummingbirds through recreation, education and sustainable living. Entry to the center is free of charge but donations help maintain the grounds, care for the birds and improve the center.
A little closer, just 25 miles south of Tucson is a world-renowned birding spot, Madera Canyon. Nestled in the northern slopes of the Santa Rita Mountain range, it’s the perfect spot for a quick adventure. Don’t miss your opportunity for night-birding in Madera Canyon in summer. Many species of owls like the Western and Whiskered Screech-Owls and the rarer Flammulated Spotted Owl have been sighted at Madera Canyon.
Alternatively, bird enthusiasts can explore the De Anza Trail in Tubac, which connects Tumacácori and Tubac along the Santa Cruz River through a beautiful riparian habitat containing cottonwoods and mesquite. In the winter, the trail is a great habitat for lingering winter migrants. Ramsey Canyon in Sierra Vista provides more birding adventures with the Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve. The area sees the highest activity between April and September due to nesting season.
Guided Birding Walks
Need someone to show you the ropes? Tucson has a wide array of guided birding walks. Start off with a docent-led birding tour at Tohono Chul Gardens. This desert oasis in the northern part of Tucson offers paved, easy-to-walk paths perfect for beginners and the gardens see 140 species of birds throughout the year.
Five minutes west of downtown Tucson, take a guided walk through Mission Garden, Tucson’s birthplace, with one of the garden’s expert birders. Their docents will help you spot seasonal and resident birds and can help beginners learn to identify common calls and songs. It is perfect for beginner and intermediate birders wanting to learn about birds common to the greater Tucson area. Or, explore more of the Sonoran Desert habitat at Catalina State Park, designated an Important Birding Area by the Audubon Society. Park rangers host free, guided birding walks on Sundays for birders of all levels.
For more guided birding bouts, connect with the Tucson Audubon Society. This all-volunteer group offers free guided birding walks, beginner birding classes, longer birding field trips, and meet ups throughout Southeastern Arizona. Guests can register for a spot through their website, and tours are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis with limited spots for each tour.
Put on by the Tucson Audubon Society, this festival celebrates birding in Southeast Arizona each August. The festival aligns with Tucson’s monsoon season, which attracts Mexican specialty birds with a summer mating season. A variety of keynote speakers, programming, field trips, workshops, photography bouts and a nature expo are among the events participants can enjoy in one of the foremost birdwatching areas of the world.
Each winter from October to March, more than 20,000 Sandhill Cranes flock to Whitewater Draw State Wildlife Area in Willcox. Wings Over Willcox is a yearly experience happening every January celebrating the Sandhill Cranes and other Southwest bird species. Attendees can learn about local and migrating birds, regional botany and geology, or enjoy field trips, food and free seminars.
The Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival goes back as far as 1991, holding the title as Arizona’s oldest birding festival, bringing birders together each May in Sierra Vista. The festival offers guided trips to nearby birding hotspots, free programs, wildlife exhibits, vendors, and speakers to celebrate the diversity of the birds and wildlife living in Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands.